Stranger Things finale recap: The Upside Down is unleashed
Chapter 8: Papa
Vecna doesn't kill Nancy (Natalia Dyer), but he does leave her with a vision: a dark cloud, dead soldiers, and armies of monsters. This is Hawkins' future if Vecna (Jamie Campbell Bower) wins. He's dangerously close to winning, too, what with four being the magic number. The four chimes of his clock mirror the four gates he needs to open to bring the Upside Down into our world. Three are open now, and the fourth will manifest upon Max's death. That means Max (Sadie Sink), who's still pumping Kate Bush into her ears, is still Vecna's number one target. That makes her great bait.
The plan is this: Nancy, Steve (Joe Keery), Robin (Maya Hawke), and Eddie (Joe Quinn) will return to the Upside Down with Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) (this time heavily armed) and ambush Vecna when he's distracted by Max. "It'll be like slaying sleeping Dracula in his coffin," Dustin says. Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Erica (Priah Ferguson) will accompany Max to the Creel House, Vecna's Upside Down hideout, and turn off her Walkman, thus drawing him out. Bullets hurt Vecna, right? Sure!
Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) knows all of this because, back in possession of her powers, she psychically drops in on her friends in Hawkins. Brenner (Matthew Modine) tells her it's as bad as they fear. "Your friends are in terrible danger," he warns. Vecna "consumes" victims when he kills them, we learn, absorbing their "abilities" to grow in strength. Owens (Paul Reiser) wants to take her to Hawkins. Brenner disagrees. He sics one of his men on Owens, then drugs Eleven and collars her with an explosive device. Unfortunately for both of them, that's when Sullivan (Sherman Augustus) and his military cohorts arrive, riddling the lab with bullets. Brenner is able to get Eleven out, but a sniper-filled helicopter waits outside. Owens pleads for Eleven's life, but Sullivan orders the sniper to shoot anyway. Brenner takes the bullets and Eleven flexes her amplified powers by bringing the bird down in a fiery crash. Brenner dies, but not before releasing the neck explosive and attempting to make peace. "You are my family, my child," he tells her, an admission of his own loneliness. She hitches a ride in the Surfer Boy van, which arrives at the perfect time thanks to Argyle's (Eduardo Franco) stoner instincts.
Back to Russia. Joyce (Winona Ryder) tells Hopper (David Harbour) about the funeral they had for him: "You're the hero of Hawkins." As they make their way out of the prison, they discover a lab where a dissected demogorgon sits among fluid-filled tubes filled with its scaly brethren. There's also a cloud of what they call "particles," which look a lot like the buzzing smoke that swirls around the Upside Down. They find an escape tunnel similar to the one in The Shawshank Redemption, only not filled with feces. Since Yuri's (Nikola Djuricko) plane is demolished, their only flight back to America is in a busted-up helicopter that Yuri says he can fix. Antonov (Tom Wlaschiha), meanwhile, uses his intelligence contacts to help Joyce and Hopper connect with Owens, who will surely help them find safe refuge.
Armed with sawed-off shotguns, molotov cocktails, and shields pegged with nails, the crew of Nancy, Steve, Robin, Eddie, and Dustin prepare for their return to the Upside Down with a deeply moody Winnebago drive set to a shadowy remix of Journey's "Separate Ways." Steve says he wants babies and a future. Eddie tells Dustin to "never change." Robin seems skeptical of their survival, as she should be. This will probably go badly.
- Best needle drop: Easily the Journey remix. Motivating, sure, but ominous and bittersweet.
- What I neglected to mention: Will (Noah Schnapp) gives a speech about El needing Mike (Finn Wolfhard) in a way that is very much about Will needing Mike. He shows him his mysterious painting, which depicts their old D&D crew fighting a dragon. Mike, according to Will, is the "heart" of their group.
- What I also neglected to mention: There's a trip to a bustling weapons store where we see a disheveled, crazy-eyed Jason (Mason Dye) buying a gun. Robin also sees her band crush, who is styled like '80s-era Molly Ringwald, canoodling with a guy, which bums her out.
- Why is Robin's band crush just hanging out at a weapons store like it's a Target or something?
- Robin's new beret is oozing some major Jill Valentine vibes.
- "What are we calling him now?" Good question, Robin. I'm going to keep calling him Vecna, because that's what I have been doing, but he's also known as One, Henry, and Peter.
Chapter 9: The Piggyback
Joyce and Hopper, after one season of sexual frustration and another of intense longing, get busy while changing into bootleg Hulk Hogan shirts. Antonov connects Hopper to a mystery woman who informs him about the situation with Eleven, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), and Will. The helicopter is still out of commission, so they perform some mental gymnastics that help them stay relevant to the larger story. Basically, they know the creatures of the Upside Down are connected via a hive mind. Perhaps if they return to the prison and torch the "particles," they'll lend a hand to their kids as they battle the Upside Down.
Well, that means they have to break back into the prison. Once they do, by traversing the feces-less tunnel they used to escape, they discover that all the demogorgons in the tubes — demodogs, actually— have escaped and are feasting on whatever Russians Hopper and his pals left alive. "The shadow," what they are now calling the buzzing Upside Down cloud, "went into them," says Hopper. He develops a plan to draw them all into the arena, where they'll be clustered and vulnerable.
In California, Eleven and company try and fail to secure flights to Hawkins. With no luck, they devise a new plan. In the same way that she previously did with Billy (Dacre Montgomery), Eleven will "piggyback" her way into Max's mind, where she can confront Vecna. To do that, she needs a tank like the one in the subterranean lab. Unfortunately, all they have is a Surfer Boy Pizza freezer. It'll do. They fill it with water and salt and Eleven fashions a pair of makeshift pizza box goggles and transports herself into the mind of Max.
Things aren't going great at the Creel House. Erica is spotted by a suspicious local, who tells Jason and the (surviving) jocks that something's happening at the "murder house." (Jason proves he's a natural with his new gun. Is there anything this guy can't do?) Inside, Max spills her guts to Vecna, admitting to him that he was right and that she did sometimes wish for Billy to die. "I didn't know if he deserved to be saved," she says, reflecting on Billy's death at the Starcourt Mall. "Now, I pray something terrible will happen to me. So, that's why I'm here. I just want you to take me away, make me disappear."
Vecna fails to materialize. Not in the way she expected, at least. Lucas begins to taunt her, calling her "sick," saying that "maybe it's good he takes you." But it's not Lucas, it's Vecna; he's got her. "It's going to be you that breaks the world," he intones. She's the final gate. Now would be a good time for Nancy, Steve, and Robin to strike.
Unfortunately, things aren't going so great in the Upside Down, either. The first part of their plan works: Eddie fires up a guitar and plays Metallica's "Master of Puppets," distracting the area's army of mutant bats and allowing a window for Nancy, Steve, and Robin to infiltrate the Creel House and unload on Vecna. Once the trio gets in there, however, the tentacles lining the hallways spring to life and ensnare our heroes. Eddie and Dustin, having retreated to the relative safety of Eddie's fortified trailer, discover that mutant bats are clever creatures capable of wriggling through air vents. Dustin makes his escape back to our world and Eddie attempts to save his friend's hide by drawing the bats away from the trailer and Dustin.
In Vecna's dream, Max sees visions of Billy in the sauna from season 3. She counters the darkness by transporting herself to a happy memory — specifically, the Snow Ball of 1984, where she and Lucas shared their first kiss back in season 2. She's safe for a spell in the comfort of the dance, but it isn't long before Vecna crashes the party. Eleven notices this psychic refuge as she enters Max's head and saves her from Vecna.
Lucas, sadly, has no one to save him from Jason, who's arrived at the Creel House with his shiny new hand cannon. He believes Max is swept up in some satanic ritual and demands Lucas wake her. Lucas won't and the pair begin pounding on each other, destroying Max's Walkman in the process.
Eleven's win over Vecna is short-lived. After gaining the upper hand and ensnaring both her and Max in his lair, Vecna recalls becoming an "explorer" in the Upside Down, a world "unspoiled by mankind." He recalls discovering the Mind Flayer, an entity he could use to "realize my potential, to transcend my human form, [and] to become the predator I was always born to be." Based on this revelation and Eleven's reaction, the implication is that Vecna has always been the driving force behind the Upside Down's infiltration into our world, and that the Mind Flayer is essentially a supernatural essence he's worked to enmesh into his being. So, as we currently understand it, it's Vecna who controls the Mind Flayer and not the other way around. (Nobody tell Dustin, who posited the idea that Vecna was the Mind Flayer's "five-star general." That might've been more interesting?) When Eleven opened the gate in the Hawkins lab in season 1, it was Vecna who rushed in. When Eleven closed the gate in season 2, it was Vecna who sought to obtain her power. Now, Vecna is opening smaller gates via human sacrifices, without the help of Eleven. "There was a time when I wanted you by my side, but now I just want you to watch," Vecna declares, shattering the dreams of those of us who wanted to see an Eleven heel turn. (That is me. It is my dreams that are shattered.)
According to Vecna, her friends have already lost. It sure seems that way, too, with Lucas getting pummeled by Jason, Eddie getting pecked by the mutant bats, and Nancy, Steve, and Robin wrapped in Vecna's tentacles. And then there's Max, who is being lifted in the air and prepped for slaughter.
In California, a convulsing Eleven is pulled from the Surfer Boy freezer by Mike and company. Will reminds Mike that he's "the heart," and Mike tells Eleven he loves her. This gives her the strength to pull free from Vecna's grip. In the Creel House, Lucas watches in terror as Max's bones snap.
In Russia, Hopper gathers the bloodthirsty creatures into the arena, where Murray (Brett Gelman) torches them with a flamethrower. The death of the demodogs ripples throughout the hive mind, weakening Vecna and allowing Eleven to save Max before Vecna's curse can finish her off. Max crumples to the floor, alive but bent like a pretzel. The bats terrorizing Eddie drop dead, but Eddie's wounds are too severe. Dustin sits with him as his new friend coughs up blood. "I didn't run away this time," Eddie says, relishing his one small win before dying.
The torching of the dogs also allows Nancy, Steve, and Robin to wriggle away from Vecna's tentacles. They find his prone body and, Resident Evil-style, light him up with molotov cocktails and point-blank blasts from Nancy's sawed-off shotgun.
Hopper stares down one last demogorgon, retrieving an errant sword and chopping its head off. This wound to the hive mind allows Eleven to overcome Vecna in Max's mind and Nancy, Steve, and Robin's onslaught to eviscerate him in the Upside Down. It appears they've won.
In the Creel House, Lucas cradles Max as she cries in his arms, telling him she's not ready to die. When death takes her, the fourth gate opens, cutting into the Earth like a butcher knife and, along with Vecna's three other gates, spreading destruction through the outer reaches of Hawkins. In Max's mind, Eleven tries to resurrect her friend.
Two days later, Eleven arrives in Hawkins with the California crew. Residents are leaving en masse. The media is calling the event a 7.4-magnitude earthquake. They say 22 people died, which seems kind of small, to be honest. There's rumors that a "doorway to hell" has been opened. Steve, Robin, and Dustin volunteer at a shelter for those unhoused by the event. Robin finds out her band crush is having boyfriend problems and they flirt. Dustin talks to Eddie's uncle, who continues to proclaim his nephew's innocence. Dustin tells him a half-truth, saying that Eddie died in the quake but that he died a hero. Regardless, Eddie is still being blamed for the murders.
Nancy, Eleven, and the California crew convene at Hopper's old cabin, which was destroyed last season. They're going to fix it up for Eleven. Will, who continues to feel a connection to the Upside Down, says Vecna is "alive and hurting." He says they have to kill him because he won't stop until he's consumed everything. Hopper and Joyce arrive and everyone reunites. Didn't think it'd be that simple, but, hey, here we are.
Max is alive, wrapped in casts in the hospital. Lucas says her heart stopped for more than a minute and she might not wake up. Eleven tries to enter her mind and it's empty.
So where's Vecna? Let's not forget what Brenner said: Vecna doesn't just kill, he consumes. It's great that Eleven was able to bring Max back from the dead, but there's a good chance that this could be a Pet Sematary situation. If she wakes up, will she be the same Max? Or will she be a vessel for Vecna?
Ash rains down from the sky. Smoke and fire in the distance. The Upside Down is breaching our world.
- Best needle drop: "Master of Puppets." A truly goofy scene, but they somehow made it work.
- What I neglected to mention: Yuri gets a bit of a face turn, with Antonov helping him remember both his former glories and the fact that, you know, there's a supernatural evil at play here. This helps convince Yuri to save Hopper, Joyce, and Murray from the prison and fly them back to America.
- What I also neglected to mention: Steve confesses to Nancy that he still loves her and all of his idyllic visions of the future involve her. I absolutely thought he was dead. How do you give someone a speech like that and not kill them?
- Poor Jason is cut in half by the gate as it manifests. The guy had no idea what he was up against. (They didn't really do much with him riling up the Satan-fearing townsfolk, huh?)
- Also, I'm pretty sure Erica says "crit hit" when she kicks the jock in the hat in the balls, which is stupid but also kind of funny.
- Lucas is reading Stephen King and Peter Straub's 1984 novel The Talisman, which the Duffer Brothers are currently helping to develop as a series with Stranger Things writer Curtis Gwinn. Good book. Way too long.
- Great subtitles in this episode. Highlights include "eldritch humming," "ominous dirge," and "sinister vocalizations."
- Is it controversial to say that you could excise the entire Russia storyline and barely anything would change except the runtime of the episodes? Or is it just that obvious?
- Hot take: Hopper should've died.
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